Move along, folks, move along. Nothing to see here.

Not till w/c 11 August, anyway.  I’m off on hols, and though I can theoretically blog away from a French poolside, do you know what, I’m not going to.

So if you’re in the habit of clicking through to this every now and then to see if I’ve got round to writing anything new, it’s a habit you can happily break for a couple of weeks.   And if you’re away over the period as well, I hope you enjoy yourself as much as I intend to. 

Ah, yes, that’s why I always say I hate analogies.

For a person who bangs on almost every day about how I hate analogies, I certainly do use an awful lot of them.

The reason I hate them is that I think that more often than not, they get in the way of what you want to say.  You have a brief, for example, to do a press ad saying that such-and-such a financial service is easy to use.  Using a boring old analogy, you say it’s as easy as a knife through butter.  You show a picture of a knife cutting through a block of butter.  People are supposed to think about your financial service, but actually they think about butter. They think about the diet they’re supposed to be on. They wonder whether butter is actually better or worse for you than Flora.  It occurs to them that putting a knife through butter actually isn’t all that easy when the knife is blunt and the butter is straight from the fridge.  They rckon the butter in your picture looks quite hard, actually, come to think about it.  And is that a special butter knife in the picture, or just an ordinary small table knife?  I’ve always thought we should have a special butter knife, but we never have.  Will there be any in the John Lewis sale?  When does that start, anyway?

And so on and so on. 

To be fair, I’m particularly opposed to the use of analogies in the headlines and visuals of press ads, on the grounds that they usually relegate what you really want to say to the body copy which no-one ever reads.  In conversation, or just in ordinary writing like this, they don’t hog the limelight quite so badly.

But in hindsight, I think – coming to the point – that in my last-but-one blog entry, that very long analogy about my trip to Scotland was thoroughly unhelpful, getting badly in the way of what I reckon is one of the more interesting and thought-worthy questions I’ve raised in this thing.

Which, without any trace of analogy, metaphor or even simply example, was this:  how good should an ordinary mass-market service be?

Should it be very good?  Should ordinary mass-market customers be delighted by whatever the service attributes happen to be – the speed of response, the personal treatment, the flexibility or whatever?  Should they find it acceptable – not so bad that they’re angry and resentful, but nothing to write home about?  Or should it be really shoddy – slow, unhelpful, customer-unfriendly, reducing a significant proportion to tears of impotent fury?

I know, it’s easy to dismiss this as a pretty silly question.  For one thing, what do I mean by “should”?   “Should” in the commercial sense, of what the service provider needs to do to maintain a successful business?   Or “should” in some kind of moral sense, to do with the responsibility organisations have when they serve the public?

I don’t think that the commercial meaning of the word “should” is going to help us very much.  The commercial pressures to deliver excellent service to mass-market consumers are much weaker than one might imagine.  For one thing, many of the organisations involved aren’t commercial.  (The worst and unfriendliest day-to-day service of all, by a million miles, is provided by the NHS.)  Some which are commercial have monopolies in their individual customer relationships.  (Millions of poor sods flying to various parts of Europe have no alternative to Ryanair.)  And even when organisations are commercial and in competitive markets – banks, utilities companies, mobile phone providers – consumers tend to assume, usually rightly, that they’re all as bad as each other and there’s not much point in switching.

That leaves the “moral imperative” dimension.  And while quite a few people in quite a few organisations may have quite a strong sense of this, it won’t often be strong enough to over-ride the “hitting our profit target” or “operating within our budget” dimension.  Sure, I’d rather pay our call-centre staff more, or train them better, or hire more of them, or increase their target call time, or improve their customer information screens, or indeed all of the above.  But that all costs money.  And making this year’s numbers looks tough enough already.

For some reason – I’m not sure why – the main supermarket retailers offer what I think is objectively a pretty high standard of service to their mass-market customers.  “Every little helps,” indeed:  if you accept the fundamental nature of the supermarket experience, it’s hard to see how it could be made much better, except perhaps by shortening the queues at the checkouts.   But I really can’t think of any other category of large service businesses with large mass market customer bases than can say the same.

Am I right?  And if so, is this acceptable?  There’s often a rather silly pretence that, honest, we’re trying to provide a good service, but by sheer bad luck you caught us on an off day.  This is hardly ever true.  The whole appointment-booking system at my local GP is a service nightmare, precision-engineered 100% to minimise the workload and suit the convenience of the practice, and 100% to be inconvenient, stressful, time-consuming and hugely frustrating for the customer.   And I could quote dozens of other examples in dozens of other areas that are equally bad – or at least nearly.

That was what I was trying to say in that last-but-one piece, if it hadn’t been for the analogy getting in the way, like a very tall man with an Afro hairstyle gets in the way when he sits in front of you in the cinema….Damn.  There I go again.

Advertising fault line faultlessly pictured.

Leon Jaume is one of the cleverest and most thoughtful creative people in advertising, with a portfolio stuffed with top quality work at top quality agencies.

Which is why his piece reviewing the Halifax’s “Howard” advertising in this week’s Marketing is a fascinating read.

Being a decent and fair-minded bloke, he spends the first half of the piece acknowledging the extraordinary success of the campaign, but then admits in the second half how deeply he detests it.  Howard and his friends, Jaume makes clear, wouldn’t have lasted long on his watch.

The question, of course, is how much subjective dislike like this actually matters.  Jaume is a creative director. It’s perfectly possible that a team at his agency could have presented it to him.  If so, it’s quite clear that he would have turned it down.  Given the contribution that it’s made to the Halifax’s business over seven years or more, would he have been right to do so?

In this exact form, the question is unanswerable. Maybe Jaume would have turned the campaign down and guided the team in a direction that would have led them towards an even more successful alternative.  But the underlying question – which goes to the heart of the unresolved issue that’s been right at the centre of advertising in this country for more than 40 years – must be answered sooner or later:  how much does it matter whether advertising is enjoyed?

Traditionally, the view was that the industry was split down the middle on the issue.   Symbolically, the country’s two biggest advertisers stood in opposite corners:  Procter & Gamble cared nothing for likeability and only for effectiveness, while Unilever believed that warmth and emotional engagement added an extra dimension.

In recent years, if you look only at the highest-profile developments, it would seem that the tide has been turning in favour of the likeability brigade.  P&G now produce some hugely entertaining and rewarding commercials – not least, appropriately enough, for Tide (a recent film on the unlikely subject of stain removal made me laugh out loud).  Similarly, in another of the heavyweight contests, Mars vs Cadbury, Mars gave up some years ago on heavy-handed charmlessness and, through slightly gritted teeth, have been rewarding and entertaining us with films for a range of their confectionery brands including Maltesers, Revels and M&Ms:  Cadbury, always the entertainers, hit new heights with “Gorilla.”

But in much the same way that Hillary Clinton seemed to win all the big states and still lose the democratic nomination, proponents of entertaining advertising seem to have won these big contests but still been beaten back overall.  These days, whole advertising media – newspapers, radio, even arguably outdoor – are more or less completely entertainment-free zones.  And even on television, for every Mars or Procters there’s a DFS or an Ocean Finance – not major brands and not working with major agencies, but bloody great big budgets spent on massively visible campaigns that care less about likeability than Procters ever did.

I can’t help feeling that the unresolved status of this issue reflects badly on advertising.  Surely after all this time, money and tracking data, we should know by now whether likeable advertising works better?  And if we still don’t, might that mean that advertising is in fact still a pretty half-arsed, subjective business which, despite the huge amounts of time and money spent on it, is still shaped more by the whims and prejudices of Leon Jaume and other decision-makers like him on agency and client side alike?

If that is the case, then there are many worse people to be making the decisions than Leon Jaume.  But you can’t help wondering when this Peter Pan industry is ever going to start showing any sign at all of growing up. 

I think you may have mistaken my friend for an ordinary person.

When I had to fly to Edinburgh from Gatwick for a meeting the other day, my PA Sue bought the ticket and checked me in online.   My office is a stone’s throw from Victoria, so I drove here from home, left the car in the office car park and took the Gatwick Express.  Standard Class was pretty full, but First was fine.  At Gatwick, the queues in the South Terminal to check in for the donkey flights were horrendous, and actually the security queue in the North Terminal wasn’t great, but going Fast Track I was through in five minutes.

After that, half an hour in the Executive Club lounge, a couple of those quite decent bacon rolls and onto the plane.  (Since I’m 6 foot 6, I was pleased that Sue had got me one of the emergency exit seats over the wings with the extra legroom.)  An hour up to Edinburgh, and then straight out, into a cab and into town for my meeting.

Why have I bored you with this tedious and uneventful narrative?  Just to make a single point:  at no stage at all on this journey was I treated like an ordinary person.

An ordinary person doesn’t have a PA to buy their ticket and check them in.  An ordinary person doesn’t have a parking space a stone’s throw from Victoria.  An ordinary person doesn’t travel First on the Gatwick Express, use the Fast Track check-in or wait in the BA lounge.  And an ordinary person has to travel in to Edinburgh on the bus, not in a cab.  At every stage, an ordinary person’s experience would be different from mine.  Different in the sense of slower, more difficult, less controllable and worse.  But also, of course, different in the sense of cheaper.

At an insurance industry dinner last night, the conversation turned to a familiar subject: why oh why  do insurance and other financial services companies provide such crap service?  One old friend at my table was particularly pissed off with his recent experience of a big life insurer’s telephone underwriting process:  the girl at the call centre simply hadn’t been able to understand what he was saying about how the medication he’s taking for his asthma, together with the medication he’s taking for his blood pressure, combine to make him a lower risk than average, not a higher risk.

The reality, of course, is that the call centre girl is undertrained, underpaid and probably needs to achieve an average call time of less than 15 minutes if she wants to keep her job.    Or to put it another way, the reality is that the service isn’t designed for high-powered financial services consultants:  it’s designed for ordinary people.

I’ve never travelled to Edinburgh with my grumpy friend, but I suspect his travel arrangements would be very similar to mine.  I suspect that like me, he eats in expensive restaurants much more often than at McDonald’s.  When he needs medical treatment, I’m sure that like me he goes private rather than undergo the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the NHS.  Like me, he has some kind of premier banking account rather than the vanilla service.   Like me, he stays in four and five star hotels, not B&Bs or Comfort Inns.  And like me, he has kids at posh private schools where the headmaster is happy to meet for a chat at any time of our choosing.

In short, my friend and I are extremely unused to being treated as ordinary people:  we live in a world where you pay more, and get looked after better.  But financial services is one of the few remaining areas of life where you can’t really pay extra for a better service.  (Well, actually, you can, by paying an IFA to take care of it all for you, but that raises a whole bunch of other issues.)

Where am I going with this?  Should insurance companies do what the Gatwick Express does, and offer Standard and First levels of service, with price tags to match?  Should insurance companies offer everyone a first-class service at a standard class price?  Or should people like my friend shut up, get real and recognise that standard-class service is almost invariably rubbish?  

There seem to be a lot of people, many of them working in the industry, who assume almost without question that the middle option is the only acceptable one.  I don’t want to sound cynical or negative, but that seems to me more than a little unrealistic.

I love it, apart from the headline and visual.

AXA’s boring “The AXA da de da de da de da Plan” outdoor campaign now has pictures as well as words, and if anything they make it slightly worse.

Every morning on the way to work at the moment, I see the execution with the headline “The AXA I need money to grow old disgracefully Plan” and the visual of the drum kit, and every morning it irritates me.

The headline irritates me because I’ve seen it (or at least the “grow old disgracefully” part) so often before.   I think I first saw it on a Halifax press ad featuring a be-leathered old geezer who looked a lot like Sir John Gielgud posing beside a large and fierce-looking motor bike, and subsequently three or four times since.   Maybe the creative team hasn’t been around long enough to know this, but this member of the target audience has.

The visual irritates me for a different reason.  It’s not because it’s a drum kit, although drummers are notoriously irritating, but because the name of the band written on the bass drum is The Bald Eagles.  Speaking personally, as a middle-aged man in a band, there’s no doubt that I am indeed a bald eagle and – objectively – so are a lot of middle-aged men in bands.  And of course, yes, yes, I may be grumpy but I’m not stupid, I know it’s supposed to be a joke.  But in a situation where Bill Wyman is 72, Paul McCartney, Pete Townsend and Bob Dylan are well over 60 and even Paul Weller and Elvis Costello are over 50, silly age jokes like this serve no useful purpose except to make the target audience feel patronised and alienated.

They say that financial advertising is a form of miscommunication inflicted on the old by the young.    Unfair as a generalisation, but spot on in this particular case.

Ideas I Wish I’d Had, No.407,638.

I’m racking my brains for some business development ideas to help us rebuild our profile in the investment funds market, usually a main part of any “specialist” agency’s client base but for some while now a distressingly small part of ours.

I do have a couple of ideas, but sadly the best one I’ve heard for some while belongs to one of our competitors.  This other firm came up with the idea of looking back at the way the use of imagery has changed in investment marketing communications over a period of ten years or more, and then going on to speculate about where it may be going in the future.

And even more cleverly, they partnered on this initiative with the giant photo library Getty Images, which a) helped reduce the cost and b) I’m told, meant that the project was based around an exhibition of some of Getty’s most stunning images which made the whole thing really visual and sexy.

I suspect you may be thinking that this concept has an obvious flaw:  surely a presentation, or indeed exhibition, about the use of imagery in investment marketing communications will be not so much visual and sexy, but more short and uninspiring?  Apart from a couple of planets, a zebra and a mountain, what would it include?

To be honest, there’s a piece of information I’ve withheld from you: the agency behind this idea was in fact US-based, the New York investment specialists Wechsler Ross (www.wechsler.com).  And although the use of imagery in US investment marcomms is a little less than kaleidoscopic in its variety and originality, it does extend some way beyond planets and zebras.

So in fact, on reflection, it might not have been such a good idea for this market.  Put it this way:  a presentation of the imagery that UK investment funds don’t ever use in their marcomms would be a very, very great deal more interesting than a presentation of the imagery they do.

Hang on a minute.  That sounds like an idea.  Where’s that phone number for Getty Images?

Aargh. Our share price seems to be collapsing.

I think it was a year ago today that we sold the agency and became part of the Cello Group.

So far, I must say, being part of the Cello Group has been an entirely agreeable experience.  Our new parents promised that provided we kept on doing what we said we’d do, they’d leave us to get on with it:  we have, and so have they.  It’s difficult to think of much that’s changed, except of course that the chart in our credentials presentation which used to be titled “Benefits of Independence” now reads “Benefits of Cello.”

But in a largely-unchanged world, one new aspect does stand out:  since Cello is a quoted company, listed on the AIM, we do now have something which I haven’t had since I worked for another quoted agency back in the 80s – a share price.

It’s surprising what an important and pernicious thing this is.   As you can imagine, it’s been moving very much in the wrong direction in recent weeks, and I can’t stop clicking on Yahoo Finance with a kind of awful fascination to see just how low it’s gone.

Among us here in this agency, I don’t imagine there’s anyone who feels there’s anything much we can do about it.  We represent about 5% of the whole Cello Group.  Developments here – positive or negative – have little or no effect on the whole. 

But things must feel very different at the Group head office.  At that level, the share price is much more important – partly because the Group directors have large shareholdings, but actually more because the shares play a big part in making earn-out payments to the businesses they’ve acquired.   And also at that level, it’s natural to believe that it should be possible to do something about it – to launch some sort of initiative, or take some kind of action, or announce some kind of news, that would impress the City and bring about a recovery.

Since I strongly suspect that most such “initiatives” or “actions” would be painful and difficult for the agencies in the Group, I’m all the more grateful that, despite what must be serious temptations, our Group directors are showing every sign of maintaining their admirable sang-froid.

God, honestly, wasn’t that last entry rubbish?

I haven’t got the faintest idea what that last piece was trying to say, and it was me that wrote it. 

All I do know is that it was a) very confusing, and b) very whingy.  (Whingey?)  And my loyal readers will both rapidly vote with their feet, or more likely their mice, if they find too much confusion and whingeing.

“Never apologise, never explain,” as they say.  So I’m not sorry and I don’t know why.  But if I ever was, or did, then I would now.